Silence is the New Black

(Below is a post I wrote for Prof. Johnson’s English 455: Literary and Cultural Studies)

In chapter 2 of Acoustic Territories, LaBelle focused on the home, the interior and the normal life noise. How noise has become the enemy is suburban communities. Adults seek to contain noise within the home, not letting that sacred territory be breached by outside interference, for instance by a car passing by blaring its radio (47). But they also seek to keep the noise of the home within the home. This was challenged by the idea of the ‘Talking House’ which sought to project the sound within the home to the outside world, essentially breaching that barrier (65).

The suburban was juxtaposed to the prison system of the early 1800s. Where silenced was used as a punishment, where physical punishment “’not only itself resistant to language but also actively destroys language, deconstructing it into the pre-language cries and groans” (72). The prison system in those times kept prisoners completely silent leading to a mental degrading (71).

This section on the prisons reminded me of the popular series Orange is the New Black that takes place in a woman’s prison. The story follows Piper Chapman, a woman who was incarcerated for helping a drug deal ten years prior. In this show the ultimate punishment, aside from transfer to maximum security or time added to their sentences, is being sent to Security Housing Unit (SHU) or solitary confinement.

Chapman experiences SHU three times and the first time was the worst. The cell is a beige cement box with nothing but a cot, a toilet and a sink for furnishings. The door has a tiny window is only uncovered when the warden wishes to speak to her or meals are brought. The hours of silence continue until it was broken when she heard a voice coming from the cell next to hers. She questions if her neighbor is real. The hours of silence make her wonder if the voice is actually her desperate need for company. In this way silence is truly a punishment, one that gives Chapman extreme mental strain. The audience never truly figures out if her neighbor was real but that made it more poignant. As LaBelle said, “The possibility of insanity though lurked as an ever-present risk, as the silent system stripped the prisoners of any real social relation” (71). It conceivably caused Chapman the need to imagine a conversational partner, to cut through the aching loneliness of solitary confinement.

Janae Watson was another character sent to SHU in the series. She is feisty and argues with a guard which sends her to solitary. When she returns her overwhelming joy at being outside, the cloudy sky no hindrance, is almost painful to watch. She is harder upon returning, less argumentative but there is a new coldness in her.

In Orange is the New Black the use of solitary confinement is a punishment. Silence is the greatest punishment because these women have created a community, one that helps them get through the long months of incarceration. Silence is imposed on them throughout the day, and at night they are not supposed to talk. Much like the suburbia LaBelle describes. Yet SHU is much worse. Silence becomes a crushing blow to the human psyche, cruel and yet accepted by the penitentiary system.

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